Webber’s ears perked up when the three little boys came into the room. They rushed over to say hello and pat him. Webber grinned in his doggy way and flopped onto the rug, sighing in pleasure as their hands stroked his silky fur.
In another dorm, Emmy was also the center of attention among a group of teen boys. She calmly walked among them for a few minutes, greeting each one and looking content. Then, she too, laid quietly on the rug, enjoying all the pats.
For therapy dogs Emmy and Webber, it was another day of “work,” as they made their monthly visit to The Barry Robinson Center. But for the children and teens who spent quality time with the dogs, the visit meant much more.
“These therapeutic pet visits serve several purposes,” said Allyson Hagan, MS, CTRS, activities director at the Center. “Many of our kids have a family pet at home that they’re missing, so those gives them a chance to visit with a friendly dog. A few or our residents have a history of problems with animals, so we can model positive interactions and appropriate boundaries.”
Small groups of children visit with the dogs for about 20 minutes. During that time, the handlers engage the children in conversation about their own pets at home and proper animal care.
Webber, a golden retriever, and his owner Kathy Rheinhart, have been coming to the Center for several years. Reinhart’s daughter, Courtney Mickliewicz, brings Emmy, a pug. Both dogs are certified therapy animals.
“The qualities of a therapy dog – loving, kind, calm, forgiving – really do make a positive difference in the people they visit,” Rheinhart said.
Webber is her second therapy dog. Two days each week, Rheinhart takes him to school at Salem Elementary in Virginia Beach where she’s a library assistant. She says Webber is a great listener for children who read aloud to him there. And he’s also the star of several children’s books authored by Rheinhart.
Research has shown the benefits of therapeutic pet visits, which can include lifting spirits, decreasing feelings of anxiety, reducing loneliness, encouraging communication and providing comfort.
“The human-animal bond can make a difference,” she said. “The children are almost always happy and excited to hang out with Webber and Emmy.”
But not always. This morning, one young boy hung back, avoiding Webber. Hagan took the boy aside and listened as he shared his sadness over missing a pet at home. Hagan encouraged him and suggested he ask his parents for photos of the dog. The boy agreed, still not wanting to visit Webber though, saying it made him “too sad.”
“We offer the visits to all of our residents,” Hagan explained. “But we understand if they don’t want to come. Some of our children are afraid of dogs. We had a young boy who came in, but he stayed in the corner, far away from Webber. Gradually, he moved closer during each visit and before he discharged, he was on the floor, loving on Webber too.”